MIAMI (AP) – As crews take off layer after layer from the collapsed condo tower in South Florida, the death toll rises – as does the burden of collecting and identifying the dead, as Rescuers and pathologists are balancing the rigor of their duties with their loved ones’ desperate need for closure.
No one has been found alive since the early hours of the June 24 disaster that killed at least 27 people in the town of Surfside, so keeping families informed has so far been a matter of bad news. And what crews find is often not intact.
“It’s not necessarily that we find victims. We’re finding human remains, ”Miami-Dade County Deputy Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said with audible gasps and moans on a day when he had the delicate task of briefing loved ones at a nursing home. assistance to families installed in a hotel near the site.
With more than 115 people still missing, the task could soon overwhelm the local medical examiner’s office, and the federal government has sent a team of five from the University of Florida to help with the DNA analysis. More help could be on the way, said Jason Byrd, commander of the Florida Mortuary Operations Response System.
The medical examiner has already encountered problems. When pathologists tried to deliver a woman’s body in time for a burial, some flawed DNA tests required them to cut off a finger and rush it to a lab to register her fingerprint, an official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity was not authorized to discuss the incident.
Time is also a complicating factor, as experts say DNA analysis becomes less reliable as bodies begin to break down.
But the way the building collapsed, with its 12 stacked floors, can make some of the job relatively straightforward, as crews clear debris from the top and descend, according to Dennis Dirkmaat, who chairs the enforcement department. and forensic sciences at Mercyhurst University.
They “remove the top layer horizontally, locate all the individuals in it,” said Dirkmaat, who worked on the recovery and identification of victims of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. September 11th. “You know exactly where they are. You can optionally place them in a particular apartment or a particular location.
Lt. Col. Oz Gino, commander of an Israeli search and rescue battalion working at the Florida site, said his team used blueprints of the building to create detailed 3D images of the disaster site in order to help with research. They also gathered information from the families of the missing to build a room-by-room model showing where people would have slept during the pre-dawn collapse.
The pace of the search for the remains of the victims has been slow so far, with efforts focused on finding anyone who may still be alive. This part of the process should take a few weeks before it turns into a recovery phase, which could also last for weeks.
Many of the building’s occupants are Jewish, and rescue workers are careful to take religious sensitivities into account when dealing with what they find.
In the Jewish faith, the entire body and all of its parts, including limbs, blood, and tissues, must be collected for burial. Bodies should not be left overnight or exposed to the open air as they are considered to be made in the image of God.
Jadallah said that whenever teams find human remains, they remove them and clear the area. They also work with a rabbi to ensure that all religious rituals are performed correctly.
The forensic doctor honored the wish of certain relatives not to perform an autopsy, which is not compulsory except in the event of a criminal investigation. They are prohibited in Jewish tradition on the grounds that the body should not be violated after death.
Mark Rosenberg, team leader at the nonprofit Chesed Shel Emes funeral society, said there were around 20 people near the collapse site who are summoned whenever someone is pulled from the rubble to say prayers.
And Yossi Landau, who leads volunteers with the Israeli organization Zaka, which helps with identifications after accidents, disasters and shelling, said his group had deployed a team to the site to help prepare for the burial. .
It’s a race against time, because Jewish tradition also says that funerals must be timely: the remains of Leon and Christina Oliwkowicz, an elderly couple from Venezuela, were identified on June 27 and their funeral was held. the next day.
“You have to bury the body in its entirety,” Rosenberg said, “and as soon as possible.”
Associated Press editors Russ Bynum in Surfside, Florida, and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed.